Stop telling us feminism means making women work more

Figures released recently by the ONS show that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children are now in work, more than ever before. Second-wave feminism has long treated women’s entry into the workplace as an unalloyed good. The ONS numbers, and the rise in the number of working women, were met in just this way by Claire Cohen at the Telegraph, who writes that this rise is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’

Cohen’s turn of phrase suggests millions of women chased weeping from rewarding careers into resentful servitude wiping bottoms and scrubbing doorsteps. Children are presented as a burden, or an obstacle to the more satisfying business of slaving over a hot spreadsheet. The ONS report is more circumspect, observing rather more neutrally: “Almost 3 in 10 mothers (28.5%) with a child aged 14 years and under said they had reduced their working hours because of childcare reasons. This compared with 1 in 20 fathers (4.8%).” So are women, as Cohen puts it, really being ‘forced’ by the inconvenient demands of dependent children to crush their career aspirations under the burden of school pickups and bottom-wiping?

Back in 2001, sociologist Catherine Hakim presented a multidisciplinary approach to understanding women’s divergent work-related choices in the 21st century: ‘preference theory’. She showed how five transformations have coincided to give the majority of women in advanced liberal economies more choice about their lives than ever before: contraception, equal opportunities, the expansion of white-collar work, the creation of jobs for secondary earners and a general increase in the importance of individual choice within liberalism.

Hakim argues that in the context of these transformations, women’s greater freedom is expressed in three main preference clusters: home-centred, work-centred or adaptive. In other words, given the choice, around 20% of women will choose a home-centred life, 20% of women will choose a work-centred one and the rest – the vast majority – will prefer a mix of both.

The ‘adaptive’ group, she suggests, is the most diverse, containing women who want to combine work and family as well as career ‘drifters’ and those who would prefer not to work but are compelled to from economic necessity. As a group they are responsive to social policy, employment policy, equal opportunities legislation, economic cycles and other policy changes governing areas such as school timetables, part-time working, childcare and so on.

Though Hakim’s work on preference theory is nearly two decades old now, Equalities Office statistics released last week support her tripartite breakdown of women’s preferences: nearly two decades after her book was published, around 20% of UK mothers are working full-time, 20% are not working at all and the rest falling somewhere in between.

The Equalities Office sees women’s divergent employment behaviour post-baby as a bad thing, with the introduction full of discussion of the ‘large pay penalties’ experienced by women with children, and the ways in which taking time out to propagate the species is ‘damaging for career progression’. The inference throughout is that women are compelled through the unfortunate demands of motherhood to cramp their soaring career dreams to accommodate the exigencies of dependent children. The report as a whole is full of bright ideas for policy levers that could be applied in one way or another to equalise this post-baby burden between the sexes and equalise the working patterns of mothers and fathers. But if Hakim is right, is it not possible that today’s statistics just reflect the way women prefer to work?

Flexible working, maternity leave, good quality childcare and so on are excellent things and should be celebrated. But so is not feeling pressured by the entire aggregate voice of the policy and media machine to increase our labour force participation at the expense of time with our families. It should not be beyond the capacity of commentators and policy wonks to consider that plenty of us are working about as much as we’d like to, and just consider other things as important as, or more important than work: for example the ability to flex a schedule to nurse a convalescent toddler, rather than chasing her out to the childminder miserable and full of snot. Or (God help me) sewing Halloween costumes. These things matter too, even if no MP can take credit for them and they do not show up in the sainted GDP stats.

Rather than presenting women’s part-time preferences as evidence of the hill feminism still has to climb, or the malign depredations of sexism, those good people at the Equalities Office and elsewhere might turn their minds to ways in which the diverse range of mothers’ work and family priorities could be better supported – including those choosing to work less.

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

Censoring motherhood in the name of feminism

The Guardian reports on the first advertisements to fall foul of June’s Advertising Standards Authority rule change on ‘sexist stereotypes’ in advertising. One ad was banned because it depicted a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. The advertiser claimed that the ad was about ‘adaptation’, and that adjusting to the arrival of a newborn baby is a situation where people must adjust. It was no use. The ASA “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm”.

Depictions of motherhood, then, are harmful to women, because they are sexist. Really? Hold on a minute. It is also polite received opinion, among the same class of our Progressive Betters who spend their time complaining about sexism in advertising, that mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed. And in this, our Progressive Betters are not thinking their position through. Because unless a mother is willing to spend hours a day hooked up to a milking machine, breastfeeding obliges her to be near her baby. How else are we to be present, boob at the ready, when our infant is hungry?

How are we to make sense of this muddled message? The only reasonable interpretation is that, in truth, our Progressive Betters do want mothers to breastfeed, to be available to our babies. But they want us to do it brim-full of miserable ambivalence. We are to breastfeed while editing science journals, answering emails from the CEO, or possibly skydiving or in space. We are to keep no more than one foot in motherhood at any time, and feed our babies knowing that this can never be a source of pride. Because to commit fully to motherhood as an occupation (even for a few short years) is to show – at best – a lack of imagination and ambition, if not a fully-fledged identification with patriarchal oppression and concomitant hatred of the rest of our sex.

The notion that depictions of motherhood are ‘harmful stereotypes’ is a rejection of the reality that a majority of mothers want to care for their children, generally a great deal more than they want to spend all day staring at spreadsheets, trading stocks or cleaning offices. But it is worse than that: by depicting motherhood as a ‘harmful’ stereotype, this value system encodes in the public sphere the notion that motherhood is a kind of failure.

In these rulings, in the name of social progress, the ASA has institutionalised contempt for traditionally feminine values. Women, it is implied, only throw off our oppression to the extent that we succeed in dissociating ourselves from any of the qualities traditionally (that is to say stereotypically) associated with motherhood. Values such as kindness, patience, empathy, self-sacrifice, placing others’ interests before our own. These values are ‘harmful’ and could (in the words of the ASA) result in women ‘limiting how [they] see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take’.

Instead, we should embrace stereotypically masculine virtues: courage, activity, adventurousness, leadership. Never mind that most women want to play the lead role in caring for their children, and that kindness, patience and a willingness to put others first are considerably more useful when dealing with a howling preschooler than two doctorates or experience leading a blue-chip corporation. Or is that just my identification with my own oppression?

Most women do a solid job of combining work interests and caring for children. More power to every single one of us, however we make it work. But it really does not help to be told that half of our useful skill set – which we know perfectly well is useful – is in fact ‘harmful’ and encouraging us to limit ourselves. Has the ASA and the rest of our Progressive Betters considered that those of us who are mothers, and who do not prioritise work above all else, just have a different idea of what constitutes ‘limitation’, and what constitutes success?

Perhaps our Progressive Betters should step back from their attempts at social engineering and think about the message they are actually conveying. Perhaps they might consider that using institutional power to enforce public valorisation only of women performing stereotypically ‘masculine’ activities, and censoring any association of women with stereotypically ‘feminine’ ones, in truth does real women with real children no favours. That they are in fact liberating women from nothing but our confidence that the skills we use in caring for our children are valuable, and that caring is itself valuable. Perhaps then they might see that their efforts to censor any public representation of motherhood, or valorisation of the traits that help mothers succeed, represents not feminist progress but a profound hatred of motherhood: the deepest and most vindictive misogyny of the lot.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman

Motherhood blew up my feminism 1: the shadows of equality

I hope to write a few pieces on this theme. I’m not an academic feminist, or even an academic. But I’ve always considered myself strongly in favour of women’s rights, and have found myself rethinking a great deal of what I thought that meant since becoming a mother. 

Before I had a baby, I was a pretty standard second-wave feminist, with some third-wave gender woo thrown in. People couldn’t really change sex but their identification mattered more; equal representation in business and public life was the key thing for women.

Having a baby blew a lot of that out of the water for me. I never really understood the permanent sense of being spread too thin that is so weakly implied by the hackneyed phrase ‘balancing work and family life’. I’d always imagined I’d go briskly back to work and childcare would be an easy solution. Then, when my daughter did arrive, it turned out that there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do so much out in the world that it overrode the visceral desire to stay close to her and prioritise caring for her. I was working freelance when I got pregnant so was never really on the ‘return to work’ conveyor belt and just haven’t felt at all inspired to claw my way back onto it. So, nearly 20 months later, I’m still not back at work. For the most part I’m happy with that choice, and I’m fortunate that my husband earns enough for me to have had the choice to care for our daughter beyond the initial 12 months maternity leave permitted in UK law, without needing to return to work part- or full-time.

Two aspects of this have blown up much of what I took as axiomatic in feminism prior to this. One, that women simply and unambiguously have more choices now than they did 50 years ago, and two, that the earnings gap between men and women was certainly down to prejudice.

On the matter of choice and motherhood, then. I’ve found myself saying often to people in recent months: ‘I’m lucky to have the choice to stay home with my daughter’. Thinking on this, it struck me that within the phrase ‘balancing work and family life’ is a whole story about the shadow side of second-wave feminism, specifically of women’s push into the workplace on equal terms to men. Very understandably, educated women burned to free themselves from the stifling expectation that they would be wives and mothers, and no more. My mother’s generation were still expected to quit work when they got married. But as that changed, and more women stayed in work, negotiated maternity pay etc, over the second half of the twentieth century the arrival of women in the workplace contributed along with de-industrialisation, the rise of the knowledge economy and a host of other things to a gradual adjustment of the economy via inflation, salary levels, housing costs and the like. And the consequence of this adjustment is that where it was once possible for even modest earners to keep a family on one salary, now – because women work as well – it takes both incomes to keep body and soul together.

That’s all very well for families where both parents have careers that are as rewarding as raising one’s children, but for parents (and yes, especially for mothers) who have jobs rather than careers it forces many back into work whether they might well prefer to stay home with children. After all, in most cases people actually like spending time with their children. It’s not all snot and shitwork. So while it’s certainly true that on paper I have a lot more choice than my mother did, partly that’s because my husband earns more than average. I’m not sure how much the feminist revolution really has increased choice for working- and lower-middle-class women at all, as much as it has widened the scope of life for women in the cognitive elite.

Though I don’t have the figures to prove it, my hunch as well is that assortative mating – the tendency of people of similar social and economic status to marry and reproduce with one another – has created a multiplier on the gap between richer and poorer families. Put more simply, lawyers, doctors and bankers tend to marry one another and combine their six-figure salaries, which in turn means that aggregate family incomes are far more widely distributed than would be the case in a society where most families had a single parent earning income. Thus top-end house prices skyrocket; independent school fees rise; and people who would have had a traditionally middle-class lifestyle 30 years ago such as journalists and academics find themselves priced out of their native cultural territory.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you are overly concerned about income disparities. (Though the people most concerned about possible increases in the gap between rich and poor are usually also strongly supportive of the right of both men and women to work on equal terms, so it is maybe unsurprising that this unintended consequence is not often discussed.) I note it because I like to follow thoughts where logic dictates they must go; not because I think things should go back to the way they were in 1965. But I’ve found myself concluding that the entry of women to the workplace has probably contributed to the gradual widening of the gap between rich and poor; and that it has forced substantial numbers of mothers – who do not particularly love their jobs – to spend more time working and less time with their children than they would otherwise choose.

Of course it wasn’t that long ago that most women had very little choice about not going out to work, whether they wanted to stay home with children or not. And now it seems to me the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is limiting women’s choices in the opposite way.

So in summary I’m no longer sure that the sex pay gap is unambiguously the result of a downward pressure exerted by reactionary forces of chauvinism on an otherwise driven and capable female workforce. And nor am I convinced that women precisely have more choice than before, say, the 1960s. Those choices have changed, but so have the social and economic pressures and I’m not convinced that has been wholly for the better. To be clear, this isn’t to say that feminism is redundant. Quite the opposite, But I do think we could do with looking a little more clear-sightedly at where we are, at what that looks like for women who have jobs rather than careers, and what exactly we think the work of motherhood is worth today.